Resist surveillance

With surveillance technologies - like CCTV camera, Aadhaar number - every movement is monitored, observed and documented.

Resist surveillance

‘You are under CCTV camera surveillance’. Yes, we are used to this language — the language of warning, the language that reminds us of the eyes that observe, classify, identify and discipline. We see it everywhere — in airports, in railway stations, in streets, in market complexes, in universities.

No, none seems to be complaining. Instead, we accept it, sanctify it, and demand more and more CCTV cameras — in school principals’ offices, in public toilets, and even in our children’s study rooms. We seem to be convinced. We believe that this technology of surveillance is god’s gift to us — it can assure safety and security, it can prevent criminality and, above all, it can identify the notorious terrorist, the pervert rapist, the deviant lawbreaker. In other words, it is a move towards peace and happiness!

If it is the internalisation of an ideology, it is frightening. At one level, modernity wants us to be proud of its spectacles: its technological miracles, its urban skyscrapers, its accelerated consumption and its super-specialty hospitals declaring war against death. Yet, see the dialectic of this progress.

The popularisation of the ideology of surveillance indicates that despite the externality of ‘progress’, we are all fearful and suspicious, and we take it for granted that the world cannot be anything more than a plot for a detective story — a turbulent place filled with conspiracies, where anyone can prove to be a terrorist, a rapist, a thief. If we are always under CCTV camera surveillance, it does by no means speak positively of the moral health of our society. We are all suspect today, we are all potential criminals. Do we realise that this self-perception speaks of a wounded society?

Yes, social philosophers — from Hobbes to Marx — have made us realise the significance of the delicate task of restoring ‘order’ in human society. The utilitarian interests of the egotistic individual for the maximisation of his pleasure, the conflict of classes with diverse economic interests, the psychic restlessness of the mad poet or the subversive mystic, the instinctive drive for immediate pleasure at the cost of social good, and the repressed anger of the underprivileged in a ruthlessly hierarchical world — there are many reasons for conflict, for the breakdown of order, for the outburst of folly, for the eruption of violence and the disturbance of ‘normality’. This human unpredictability, the ‘Establishment’ believes, necessitates the cycle of discipline and surveillance to retain order in society.

In our times, Michel Foucault has enriched our understanding of this practice of discipline and power generating the widespread chains of surveillance. Unlike the medieval theory of punishment that concentrated primarily on physical torture, as Foucault said in his classic Discipline and Punish, in modern times power observes, monitors, hierarchises, normalises, examines, works in depth on consciousness, and makes us docile in body and mind. These practices of power are everywhere — in prisons, in mental asylums, in schools, in work places.

With the technologies of surveillance — be it a specific architectural design like Jeremy Bentham’spanopticon as Foucault indicated ,or today’s aadhaar card and CCTV camera, every movement, every gesture, every action has to be monitored, observed and documented. The more observed we are, the more ‘disciplined’ we become! This is the new science of social control.

However, for a healthy society, we need to resist this regime of power and surveillance. This is possible only if we are ready to acknowledge two things. First, it is a myth that the technology of surveillance, such as the CCTV camera, necessarily minimises criminality. In fact, there is no empirical evidence to prove that with surveillance, man has become saner. Had it been so, there would not have been recurrence of violence in every possible place — a washroom in a posh school in Gurugram, a ‘tube’ station in technologically advanced London, an auditorium in mighty America, a residential colony in tech-savvy Bengaluru. The identification of the criminal and eradication of criminality are two separate things, without any positive correlation.

Fear psychosis

Second, we need to understand that instead of ending violence, this culture of surveillance is destroying the fabric of human civilisation: the fundamental spirit of trust.

See the psychology of fear and associated negativity that surround our existence. Today we are advised not to trust anybody. As the cops repeatedly announce, the fellow passenger with whom I am travelling in the sleeper class of the train, or the old woman who is begging for food in the ‘smart city’ can prove to be a terrorist or a thief with a notorious design. In this vicious cycle of suspicion, each of us becomes a potential ‘case’.

The gaze of power deprives us of our human spontaneity, our positive vibrations, and our capacity to trust and care.

This does not mean that I am imagining a utopian world in which everyone is a saint, and there is no malicious design. Yes, the very complexity of the human situation, as anthropologists and psychologists have argued, indicates the continual possibility of diverse forms of aggression, violence and misbehaviour.

No society can exist with a reasonable degree of alertness. However, there is a difference between being alert and being eternally suspicious. The answer — at least, a move towards a meaningful answer — is a blend of egalitarian economy, democratic communicative spheres, intimate associations and spiritualised practices of self-illumination that heals, and constructs the foundations of a life-nurturing civilisation.

The likes of Jesus and Gandhi, Marx and Buddha, Tolstoy and Rumi talked about this path. But then, army generals, social engineers with instrumental rationality, technocrats and power-hungry political administrators would laugh at these ‘utopias’ and speak of ‘practical’ stuff — war, domination, surveillance, documentation and regimentation. Which path should we choose to strive for a better world? 

(The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU)

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